Paris in July: The Secret of Chanel No. 5…et un petit cadeau

The Secret of Chanel No. 5 by Tilar Mazzeo is a fascinating book which explores the famous fragrance from the woman behind it, to its creation, to the effect that it’s had in the world since its birth in 1921. We begin with the idea of what Coco wanted her perfume to portray:

“She (Coco) wanted something oddly contradictory. Her perfume had to be lush and opulent and sexy, but it also had to smell clean, like Aubazine (the Catholic orphanage in which she grew up) and Emilienne (the chanteuse from the cabaret demi-monde). It would be the scent of scoured warm flesh and soap in a provincial convent, yet it would be unabashedly luxurious and sensual. In the world of fine fragrance today, a perfume begins with an idea, a “brief”, and if Coco Chanel had put into words what she was looking for in her signature scent it would have been this tension.”

We continue with why the fragrance has such a sexual connotation:

“Generally speaking, there are three kinds of materials that are used to make perfume-scents inspired by flowers; scents inspired by other parts of plants, such as their roots, barks, and resins; and scents inspired by the smells of animals. Chanel No. 5-one of history’s most famously sexy perfumes-uses them all in generous doses. But Chanel No. 5 is especially about the florals-the ingredients of traditional perfumery that might seem to have the least common with the smell of the body. Yet, reconsider. Flowers are after all the essential machinery of a plant’s reproductive organs, and perfumes are often made from their sexual secretions. The difference between plant estrogens and animal estrogens is a slight one.”

And we carry on with how Chanel No. 5 experienced its international fame most especially after World War II:

“It remained a luxury even as all other comforts of living vanished, and this status of luxury–as something untouched by this era of losses–was part of the magic and desire. It was this idea of making the perfume available through the United States Army, though, that catapulted the fragrance to new levels of cultural celebrity. Like the perfume itself–a balance of sexy florals and fresh-scrubbed aldehydes–it was the embodiment of an essential contradiction: something at once completely familiar and exclusively luxurious.”

“That connection had been confirmed in the minds of millions of Chanel No. 5 enthusiasts in 1952, when rising starlet Marilyn Monroe revealed that when she wanted to feel sexy, she turned to No. 5. Memorably, an impertinent reporter once asked what Monroe wore to bed, and the coy response came: “Nothing but a few drops of Chanel No. 5.” Today, it is still one of her best-remembered quips.”

A decade later, however, Chanel lost much of its prestige. “By the early 1960s, it was suffering from a potentially disastrous overexposure and was widely available throughout the United States in discount drugstores and at chain outlets like Woolworth’s. It was becoming associated with the kind of scent that was worn by an older generation of women who were out of step with fashion.” The brilliant idea to counteract this image was to hire Catherine Deneauve as the fragrance’s spokes-model. Her films, her voice, her beauty brought back the sexual allure that Chanel No. 5 had always carried.

One of the more recent faces of Chanel No. 5 is “the girlishly sexy Audrey Tatou, who first came to international fame as the title character in Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain (2001; released in English as Amelie)

“It has been a coordinated and evolving campaign that has made Chanel No. 5 more famous than ever, but it has worked for the same reason the Second World War made it an icon: these films and fragrances are an invitation to mystery and fantasy.”

As for the answer to the question the title of Tilar’s book provokes, what is the secret behind Chanel No. 5? “It’s the wonderful and curious fact of our collective fascination with this singular perfume for nearly a century and the story of how the scent has been–and remains–capable of producing in so many of us the wish to possess it. Think of that number: a bottle sold every thirty seconds. It is an astounding economy of desire.”

And to fulfill in part any desire you may have toward experiencing this fragrance for yourself, I have:

…a brand new box of Chanel No. 5 soap. It may be the perfect introduction to this fragrance, for if you don’t know that you want to wear it, you can scent your whole room just by leaving the soap in a dish. You can scent a drawer, as well, or your entire bathroom. (If you are a man still reading this, you can give it to your woman.) I hope this choice is a good way for you to enjoy the now and forever fragrance.

…two sample fragrances from Dior: J’adore and Miss Dior. Underneath is a sample of Guerlain’s famous oriental fragrance, Shalimar. They have nothing to do with Chanel, of course, I simply include them as French fragrances.

…a nifty little gift from Chanel’s Esprit Croisiere at Nordstrom. This is authentic blue sand on a classic little beach scape which resembles Monte Carlo. The little umbrellas and boardwalk have holes to allow the sand to flow through, so that you can control how much sand appears on the beach by shaking the box. 

To enter the give-away containing the soap, the samples, and the little box, simply leave your name and email address. I will select a winner and announce who it is on July 31, 2014, when Paris in July comes to a close. Bonne chance!

30 thoughts on “Paris in July: The Secret of Chanel No. 5…et un petit cadeau”

  1. Such an interesting story… I'm glad that this memorable fragrance was able to keep its place in the world of perfume, especially considering all of the competition out there. It is wonderful to see a fragrance that can carry on from generation to generation.


  2. I can hardly believe it's seven years away from its 100th birthday, and yet it still sells with a bottle every thirty seconds. I know of no other perfume that has remained so popular, nor kept its integrity. My favorite Guerlain, Parure, had to be discontinued because European law changed what was allowed in the forlmulation, and they wouldn't make a “lesser” product. Fortunately,mthe laws didn't effect the amount of jasmine and rose petals required for No. 5.


  3. What a fascinating and comprehensive background about this famous and unforgettable fragrance. The book and the photos are captivating and the giveaway wonderful. Many thanks for this beautiful feature. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com


  4. I enjoyed this Chanel No. 5 post which gave me a great deal of information and insight into the perfume and how it evolved. If Chanel No. 5 can supersede all of the other interlopers then it is definitely superior. An extremely interesting and unique giveaway which I appreciate greatly. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com


  5. Such a wonderful post about Chanel No.5. And the book sounds lovely. I wear it sparingly because I never want it to become mundane. On my daughter's wedding day grandmother, mother and bride all were at our best and Chanel No. 5 was an essential part of the whole.
    Thank you for alerting me to the book. Kaw5931(at)aol(dot)com


  6. What a lovely image of the grandmother, mother and daughter all wearing the same lovely fragrance! It is a nice symbol of solidarity, togetherness on such a special day. I wish I had thought to do that on my own day.


  7. Fabulous post, Bellezza. How fascinating to hear more about the evolution of this classic perfume, and I love the photographs you've included.

    I'm not sure if you're accepting international entries, but if so, you have my email. x


  8. Thank you, it was an intentional sentiment. We all love and wear Chanel in various forms but each of us love No. 5.

    As an aside, I have just recently (a few days) discovered your blog and am appreciative of your fine reviews. I have found that I want to read every book. I love literary fiction but have realized it's been the more common well known variety. I'm excited to begin a new journey for I have been ready and looking for something different to help me climb out of a reading slump.


  9. I didn't think there could be so much history to a perfume but it was so fascinating to read your post! This book will be on my radar now. Beautiful review!


  10. Kat, it makes me so happy that you've found some reviews that intrigue you. I, myself found that books I thought were literary were in fact rather ordinary. Now the more I explore international and translated literature the better I like it. The only problem is getting my hands on titles I've discovered through literary prizes or other blogs; our library seems to carry little but Nora Roberts. We'll have to talk about some of our favorite finds, and please let me know if you read anything reviewed here. I'd love to know your opinion.


  11. This was really a fascinating book, telling more than the history of the fragrance. I learned so much about the decades from the 20s to now, how even the style of he flapper still exists on runways today (as in super thin, almost child-like girls). Glad you enjoyed the review, and if you smell the fragrance you may like it as much as I.


  12. I'm the type who immediately rips open the package and puts it in the tub. But when I gave a bar to my friend she out in her bedroom and her whole upstairs smelled divine. Who knew?


  13. I really like Audrey, I have seen all her movies, including the latest one, L'ecume des jours, made after Boris Vian's book, but I must admit I was a bit amazed when I saw her promoting Chanel no. 5 mainly because I see it as a classic perfume, and you really have to be an icon to promote it, but then, I remember she played Coco in the movie “Coco before Chanel”, which I highly recommend, so that must be it 🙂


  14. According to Tilar Mazzeo, who wrote this book, Audrey was the perfect choice because she closely resembled Coco Chanel at the launch of her famous perfume. Both were thin, girlish, (impish?) and seemingly daring. It seems Chanel no. 5 has taken on a grandmotherly aspect, at least from my experience of it in the 70's and 80's, but I think it is slowly pulling out of that appearance. Especially with the creation of Eau Premiere, which is a lighter, fresher version of No. 5.


  15. I had not idea about the complexity of this fragrance until I read about its history in this book. What a miraculous feat to be not only in existence, but coveted, for more than ninety years!


  16. I started wearing Chanel No.5 in high school — my sophomore year, I believe. It was for special occasions, but I loved it, and found many special occasions that required it. Going to the grocery store would qualify.

    One of my favorite memories includes No.5. When I still was of pre-school age, Santa began coming to our house every Christmas eve, bringing me a gift. My first gift from him was a rubber duck-shaped floating soap dish. I never knew who he was (there's a story behind all that) but the last time he arrived at our house on Christmas Eve, I was in my freshman year at college. His gift to me? Chanel No.5, of course!


  17. Those are some lovely images, and thanks very much for the giveaway. I've never actually graduated beyond the Mademoiselle perfume, I must give Chanel No.5 a try sometime. Email (


  18. Excellent review. I enjoyed this book, but I came to Chanel No. 5 through the book, rather than the other way around! I second the idea to leave the soap in a drawer – it make everything in there smell heavenly.


  19. What a fascinating review. Now that I think about I'm not sure that I've ever smelt #5, I will have to change that. I bought a perfume in Paris last trip (Lalique's Satine) I love it so much, it transports me back to Paris every time I even look at the bottle, let alone when I use it. It's also the only perfume that I've ever worn that strangers stop me in the street to ask what perfume I'm wearing! I think I'll test out #5 next visit.


  20. Bellezza, thanks for an informative post! I don't wear perfume, but still it's fascinating to know all about it. I recently saw a French film starring Audrey Tatou, she looks so much like Audrey Hepburn in her Breakfast at Tiffany's days. 😉


  21. While it isn't precisely lemony, I use a lovely scent called Seashell by V'tae almost exclusively in the summer, and often in other seasons. It's listed ingredients include grapefruit, lemongrass, cypress, cedar and geranium. Here's a link to the seashell products on their site. If you want just a hint of what it's like, stop by a counter where there's a 4711 tester. I like Seashell better, but they're close enough that it will give you a hint.


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